"Afrika" art and decoration installation during the 1st annual Oakland Juneteenth Fest, 2020 at Lake Merritt. Credit: Amir Aziz

June 19th, known to many as Juneteenth, marks the day that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to inform enslaved African Americans that they were free citizens (or at least freer than before) and that the Civil War had ended. The announcement came nearly two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing enslaved peoples in parts of the Southern States that were in rebellion. And it followed years of conflict, including resistance and rebellions by Black people that played a role in the overthrow of the Confederacy.

President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 that designated Juneteenth a federal holiday. Juneteenth’s official recognition was in response to the nationwide protests that resulted from the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people. 

Black Americans, however, have celebrated this momentous occasion long before it was officially recognized. Juneteenth celebrations started in Texas in 1866 and spread throughout the U.S as Black people moved to regions like California’s Bay Area. Annual festivals and gatherings have been held for decades in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, Berkeley, and Richmond. 

Oakland is currently experiencing a revival of Juneteenth celebrations, with many festivals and events planned across the city. 

The Black Cultural Zone—a community development corporation working with a coalition of residents, local nonprofits, organizers, churches, and city agencies—is hosting Liberation Weekend: A Juneteenth Celebration at Liberation Park in East Oakland. It is one of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations occurring in the Bay Area this holiday weekend. 

The event includes a wide variety of programming that features work from artists such as Ashara Ekundayo of Artist as First Responder, Mizan Alkebulan-Abakah of Spearitwurx, and Nichole Talbott of Asé Arts. All three artists have been integral parts of the Black Cultural Zone’s programming in the past. Their work is intended to uplift East Oakland’s Black communities economically and emotionally through art-based initiatives. 

“The entire process that is the Black Cultural Zone is the epitome of freedom and liberation at the center of cultural practice and creativity,” Ashara Ekundayo said. “The fact that Carolyn Johnson, the director of Black Cultural Zone, said, ‘We’re going to have an annual Juneteenth event in East Oakland,’ speaks to her commitment that making sure that beauty and joy are part of the legacy that is East Oakland.” 

Ekundayo’s Artist as First Responder is involved in a number of art activations during Liberation Weekend, including a live interactive mural painting by artist Christopher Burch at Liberation Park, which will be completed on Juneteenth. The group is also hosting a Plant-Based Beat workshop with Letef “DJ Cavem” Vita, a massage and reiki session with Rosesharon Oates, and much more.

For Ekundayo, the way she celebrated Juneteenth depended on where she was living. 

“I grew up in Detroit, lived there until I was a teenager, and then my family moved to Denver. I had never heard of Juneteenth until I moved to Denver because it was not a holiday that we celebrated in Detroit—not my family, at least,” Ekundayo said. “I haven’t always been in a state of celebrating it, but for the years that I was in Denver I did.”

Juneteenth became a federally recognized holiday in 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

Nichole Talbott, founder of Ase arts, also grew up in Denver and remembers Juneteenth being present in her childhood. “Growing up, it was the thing to do. Denver doesn’t have a very large population of Black people, so it was wonderful to see people out and about celebrating Black joy, and it still is beautiful to see that,” Talbott said. 

Talbott’s business, Ase Arts, has been around for a year and hosts art classes and workshops for both children and adults. During Liberation Weekend, Ase Arts will be at Akoma Market promoting workshops and selling artwork. 

“We are a partnering business with Black Cultural Zone and their vision really spoke to me about how they want to uplift the Black community and Black culture here,” said Talbott. 

Ndidi Love, the Black Cultural Zone’s economic development manager, is one of the principal organizers of Liberation Weekend. Love grew up in Long Beach and remembers attending Juneteenth political actions and celebrations in South Los Angeles.  She said it’s important that large-scale celebrations like Liberation weekend are available in Oakland. 

“We were celebrating Juneteenth since before it was a federal holiday, so it becoming a federal holiday makes it more comfortable for us to celebrate,” Love said. “Members of the African American diaspora don’t necessarily have to choose whether they’re going to celebrate Juneteenth or go to work.” 

For some, it’s important to preserve and spotlight the complexities of Juneteenth

Randolph and Erica Belle of RBA Creative, a fine arts gallery, co-working space, and photography studio. Credit: Amir Aziz

While artists and organizers involved with the Black Cultural zone are working to create an uplifting Juneteenth experience for Oaklanders, other business owners who have celebrated in the past are taking this time to reflect on how the spirit of Juneteenth plays out in their daily lives.

Laurel resident Randolph Belle grew up in San Francisco and enjoyed regularly attending the city’s Juneteenth festival in Fillmore as a kid. But as an adult, Randolph, who co-owns the fine arts and photo studio RBA Creative on MacArthur Boulevard with his partner Erica Wright Belle, believes celebrating Juneteenth extends beyond attending festivities. 

“Every day is Juneteenth to me because I have to wake up every morning with an attitude that allows me to take care of my family,” he said. “Some people don’t have to do that because there aren’t these countervailing forces in their way.” 

Erica Wright Belle, who grew up in Oakland, doesn’t remember big celebrations here like the festival held in neighboring Berkeley. “We didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth. We kind of knew what Juneteenth was but we didn’t venture over to San Francisco to their celebration.”

According to Erica, there is also an uneasy feeling that comes from seeing the commercialization of a holiday with deeper weight. “You’re seeing a lot of Juneteenth sales and businesses who are not Black profiting off of this,” she said. “I’m not necessarily jumping for joy that it’s a national holiday.” 

Still, Erica and Randolph feel that it is important for everyone to recognize the holiday because it can serve as a gateway for supporting Black entrepreneurship on a long-term basis. 

“If you can get people to think, ‘Let me support a Black-owned business on this one day,’ the goal is to then start a relationship with that small business owner and get repeat customers,” Erica said. “You then start to realize that Black businesses aren’t just for Black people. They’re owned by Black people, but they’re for everyone.” 

The Belles said they have strived to make the ethos of Juneteenth ever-present in their business, a space where other artists can produce work that’s true to them. 

“Juneteenth is about the acknowledgment of being free, and that revelation of being free opens up the realm of possibilities,” Randolph said. “That’s kind of how I got into the business because I realized I didn’t have to find a job working for someone else, I could do this.” 

The Belles want the artists who utilize their co-working space to be able to access that concept of freedom tangibly. 

“It’s their space to curate; our business is about creatives and entrepreneurs coming into a space to collaborate,” Erica said. “The artists in our space now happen to be six Black women and their art, I think, represents something that’s freeing and positive about the Black community.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.